Rohingya refugee women gain skills and a voice making eco-friendly products
From the outside, the Jute Bag Production Centre is just another temporary-looking bamboo structure in the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. But step inside and it is a brightly lit hive of activity where dozens of Rohingya refugee women huddle over sewing machines or cutting tables.
The centre, jointly operated by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partner organization, NGO Forum for Public Health, engages 130 Rohingya women to make products such as UNHCR grocery bags, nursery bags for tree planting, and products, including backpacks and file folders, for other humanitarian aid agencies. Everything is made from jute, a natural locally produced fibre that is completely biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
The women are coming here to learn skills for their future.
Urbi Chakma, who has been managing the centre since it opened two years ago, explains that most of the women are heading up their households as widows or divorcees. They all receive training on how to use the electric sewing machines to make products for use inside the camp and receive a stipend for their work.
“The women are coming here to learn skills for their future,” Urbi says. “When they return to Myanmar, they can use these skills to earn a living and it gives them hope.”
With the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh well into its sixth year, humanitarian funding has reduced, while the needs of nearly one million refugees remain urgent. Women and children, who make up more than 75 per cent of the refugee population, face higher risks of abuse, exploitation, and gender-based violence.
The Jute Production Centre gives Rohingya women a critical opportunity to become less dependent on humanitarian aid. Giving refugees access to new skills and livelihood opportunities is key to allowing them to support their families, and above all, to preparing them for rebuilding their lives when they can voluntarily and safely return to Myanmar. For single mothers, who often feel isolated in their communities, the centre also provides a place to meet with other women in similar situations.
“They gossip with each other about their sorrows, which actually reduces their depression,” notes Urbi.
For Hussain Banu, 32, the centre is a place where she comes to work and learn new skills, but it’s also where she and her friends chat about what they cooked the night before or how they’re managing their children’s ailments.
“I like coming here every day,” she says. “If I sat at home idly, I wouldn’t feel good because I have no husband, only my children.”
Hussain was separated from her husband during the violence that erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017. She fled across the border to Bangladesh with her parents and her two young children during the influx and gave birth to her third child after arriving in Cox’s Bazar. “I haven’t heard any news of my husband since then, so I assume he’s dead,” she says.
Before she began working at the Production Centre just over a year ago, she was struggling to make ends meet and provide for her children.
I used to worry all the time about how I would feed my children.
“With the rations, we didn’t get clothes or anything else, and even the food was not enough,” she recalls. “I used to worry all the time about how I would feed my children.”
Now, with the small stipends she earns, she can buy the occasional fish and sandals for her children.
“It’s not easy for them to come here because there are so many social norms,” Urbi says, referring to conservative attitudes towards women within Rohingya communities. “They’re breaking this social norm and prejudice for the benefit of their families.”
Hussain says she ignores any suggestion that she should stay at home. “What will I do if I listen to other people?” she asks. “I can pay for things for my children, so that’s what matters to me the most.”
Community attitudes towards women working outside the home are slowly changing, says Urbi, but the biggest change she has observed is in the women themselves.
“When we start the training, they are so shy,” she says. “But after the training, you see them raise their voices.”